At the edge of alpine and Arctic ecosystems all over the world, a transition zone exists beyond which it is either infeasible or unfavorable for trees to exist, colloquially identified as the treeline. We explore the possibility of a thermodynamic basis behind this demarcation in vegetation by considering ecosystems as open systems driven by thermodynamic advantage – defined by vegetation’s ability to dissipate heat from the earth’s surface to the air above the canopy. To deduce whether forests would be more thermodynamically advantageous than existing ecosystems beyond treelines, we construct and examine counterfactual scenarios in which trees exist beyond a treeline instead of the existing alpine meadow or Arctic tundra. Meteorological data from the Italian Alps, United States Rocky Mountains, and Western Canadian Taiga-Tundra are used as forcing for model computation of ecosystem work and temperature gradients at sites on both sides of each treeline with and without trees. Model results indicate that the alpine sites do not support trees beyond the treeline, as their presence would result in excessive CO2 loss and extended periods of snowpack due to temperature inversions (i.e., positive temperature gradient from the earth surface to the atmosphere). Further, both Arctic and alpine sites exhibit negative work resulting in positive feedback between vegetation heat dissipation and temperature gradient, thereby extending the duration of temperature inversions. These conditions demonstrate thermodynamic infeasibility associated with the counterfactual scenario of trees existing beyond a treeline. Thus, we conclude that, in addition to resource constraints, a treeline is an outcome of an ecosystem’s ability to self-organize towards the most advantageous vegetation structure facilitated by thermodynamic feasibility.